You Will Be My Son (Tu seras mon fils)

France (2011) Dir. Gilles Legrand

Renowned wine maker Paul de Marseul (Niels Arestrup) is in a panic when his trusted old friend and estate manager François Amelot (Patrick Chesnais) is diagnosed with cancer just as the annual harvest is due. This causes Paul to wonder about the future of his vineyard as he has little faith in his own son Martin (Lorànt Deutsch), towards whom Paul has shown no love or affection to since he blames Martin for the death of his wife.

Fortunately when François’s son Philippe (Nicolas Bridet), a successful vintner in his own right in the US, returns home to visit his sick father, Paul goes to great lengths to join his business and take the role that Martin so desperately wants.

While a modern production You Will Be My Son has a lyrical quality to it that will make the story feel like an unearthed Claude Chabrol script, so savage is the bite the developments take out of the characters.

The story may wander into melodrama territory as it explores the tragedy surrounding a corrosive and erosive father-son relationship but Gilles Legrand ensures the lines of credibility are never crossed to deliver a potent and dark twisting story that is never once compromises its integrity.

The rural setting of the Saint Émilion vineyards run by hard headed traditionalist Paul creates a warm nostalgic atmosphere not too dissimilar to Jean de Florette, with the quaint old houses and lazy bustle of the vineyards. Martin is obviously the modern one, using computers and hi tech machinery to get the job done.

As hard as he might try, Martin can’t win his father’s approval and every idea he proffers is immediately shot down, often in a blaze of public humiliation. Paul can’t even hold his tongue before Martin’s loyal spitfire wife Alice (Anne Marivin) who reciprocates his hostile words. Regardless Martin continues to ingratiate himself to Paul with no reward.

Phillipe’s arrival changes everything and Paul’s plans to have Phillipe usurp his position are not lost on Martin. All of the ideas Paul dismissed are suddenly adopted with fervour when Phillipe suggests them, who of course is heaped with praise upon the resultant success. Jealousy understandably overcomes Martin but his protests are ignored by both Phillipe, who can’t see his strings are being pulled, and by Paul who again dismisses his son as being petulant and disrespectful.

When Paul is invited to Paris to accept a Legion D’Honneur, he takes Phillipe instead of Martin, and the newspaper headline citing Paul “and his son” sets off a shocking and destructive chain of events that won’t resort in any celebratory bottles of bubbly being opened.

There is no question that Paul’s cold behaviour towards his son seems almost ludicrous to the viewer, exacerbated by Martin’s continual earnestness to ignore it and win his father over. But Niels Arestrup is pitch perfect as the demanding schemer that he makes it believable and one finds themselves almost willing him on to notice his son and have a change of heart.

Sadly, this is not a tale of redemption, a nice subversive twist to save this film from the aforementioned schmaltzy melodrama, and thus legitimises the effectiveness of Arestrup’s performance. Sympathies are very much encouraged but not quite how you imagine them to arise and for whom.   

As the proverbial punch bag, Lorànt Deutsch is lacking in presence both physically and in personality as the pitiful Martin, with a naturally pallid and almost rodential face that almost invites poor treatment. At first he is too pathetic to sympathise with but as masterfully as Arestrup makes us hase Paul, Deutsch makes us root for Martin.

Quite what the stunning Alice sees in the industrious but milquetoast would be vintner remains unanswered but she is solidly behind him to the end. Early on the suggestion is that maybe Martin is cuckolded by Alice but this quickly and neatly assuaged to reveal the only true relationship of the film.

Along with the superb performances and the lusciously inviting photography that shows off the wistful beauty of Saint Émilion, we are treated to an insight into the wine making procedure, complete with its bespoke terminology and the unique machinery and methods to provide some educational value to the proceedings that doesn’t intrude on or dilute the emotionally resonant drama that drives this film along.

You Will Be My Son is a film that teases the viewer with another run of the mill slice of Gallic drama then pulls the gloves off to deliver some vicious one-two punches to throw you off guard. A superbly made, engaging and borderline divisive film, this is too good to be hiding under the radar where it currently resides.